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Angry residents confront Pasco officials over flooding issues

NEW PORT RICHEY — Flood-affected residents on the west side of Pasco County had their first chance to voice their frustrations to county officials Tuesday, and they were not bashful.

The county, they argued, has not done nearly enough to prevent or mitigate flooding in their neighborhoods.

The boardroom at the Pasco County Government Center overflowed into the hallway Tuesday night as officials met with residents from the Bear Creek/Pithlachascotee Watershed, which includes neighborhoods such as Bass Lake, Yellow Lake, Cranes Roost, Golden Acres and Griffin Park.

Tables outside the meeting room were staffed with county personnel who provided residents with watershed maps and information about human services and flood insurance assistance.

Cindy Jolly, the county's project manager for stormwater management, discussed how areas like Bass Lake in New Port Richey are closed, bowl-like basins, where it takes water a long time to evaporate.

Historically, water from Bass Lake would flow south into Rock Sink, Jolly said. But when the sink filled with water in recent weeks, water from Bass Lake began to flow north.

County staffers placed five sets of large culverts in the area before the flooding, but they weren't enough to keep out the water, said Michael Garrett, the county's public works director.

As county officials discussed previous studies and projects to assess watershed problems, residents began walking out of the room and shouting: "I already know what they didn't do!" and "We're the ones surrounded by water!"

Residents blamed much of the flooding in their area on the expansion of Ridge Road, which is still under construction. Families living in the Cranes Roost neighborhood complained about floodwaters in their yards, water that they believe was pumped out of the Ridge Plaza shopping center, which includes a Walmart Neighborhood Market.

One of the shopping center's developers did not realize that the pump was connected to a pipe through which water was flowing for about a week, said County Administrator Michele Baker.

County officials detected the problem and forced the pumping of water in the opposite direction for the next two weeks, Baker said.

Shouting and yelling erupted in the audience as residents urged the county to penalize Walmart for sending water into their yards.

"I appreciate the anger, and I understand the frustration," Baker said, attempting to keep order.

During a public comment period, more than 20 residents spoke. Many expressed their impatience with the county's studies and projects, calling for urgent action and results.

"You've allowed hundreds of houses to be built on this watershed," said Dennis Harmon, a resident of Bass Lake Drive. "Fix it. Quit studying it."

Resident Hugh Townsend also blamed development in the county for some of the watershed issues.

"I'm asking for a moratorium on construction until we get a handle," Townsend said.

Jeromy Harding, a Golden Acres resident, pointed out that it took six days after the flooding began for county officials to provide water and basic necessities to affected areas. He also criticized the county's early decision to limit the number of sandbags available.

Kristen Schwendeman, a Griffin Park resident, said she has lived in the area for 11 years and has seen her neighborhood flood several times.

"The mosquitoes are nasty," she said. "My kids are sick."

She asked if the county would be able to make any permanent changes in her neighborhood to prevent future flooding. Baker told her that completely retrofitting old neighborhoods was unlikely to happen.

Baker said that many studies and projects would need to be considered to improve the watershed's problems, but the county does not have the money for long-term construction.

"Ultimately, when we identify permitable improvements, we're all going to help pay for this," she said. "We need a holistic solution."

Contact Samantha Schmidt at (813) 435-7308 or sschmidt@tampabay.com. Follow @schmidtsam7.

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